Battling Brown Spots On Ceilings and Walls

Are brown spots showing up in your DIY projects, or in your home? You’re not alone. When I painted over my pantry shelves, I ran into brown spot issues. I realized that there are often brown spot issues throughout the home including brown spots on ceilings and walls, water stains, even furniture. All have different sources. Could one of these be yours?

I will highlight many of the most common sources, including moisture, mold, and paint issues (surfactant leaching). Hopefully, you will be able to quickly figure out what’s happening at your house.


In the case of a leak, the source could be a leaking pipe or appliance (if there is a bathroom or appliance in use above the ceiling on a second floor). The leak could also carry over from a different location, such as running along the length of a pipe and ending up at the visible spot you see.


If the stains are on the corners of an outside wall or along the edge, it could be failing insulation or a roof that needs replacing. When the insulation is not sufficient enough, ice dam leakage occurs. It’s important to inspect the attic for any stains or condensation. You may even have to lift up insulation in the attic to find water damage.


In my old farmhouse, I have an old addition where cellulose loose-fill insulation was pushed into a wall cavity of an outside wall. Loose-fill is a fluffy insulation type that can be made of bits of ground paper (recycled newspaper, cardboard, etc.).. Unfortunately, the downside of adding cellulose loose-fill, is that it settles.

The result is that I have no insulation near the top of the wall. In the winter I can even have a frost line inside of the room. This extra condensation will leave water stains and begin to break down the paint job that is there. I did use KILZ stain blocker on it after I ripped off the old wall paper. It is a true insulation problem, loose-fill insulation was not good for a vertical application.

Blown-in insulation is a great solution for old houses. More insulation can be added into a wall, after drilling an entry point. People who are looking to improve energy efficiency may do this.

American Insulation reports that insulation can settle over time in attics. Did you know that old insulation should be removed before adding new insulation? I didn’t know that. This is because of the possibility of mildew, mold, or rodent excrement. I also learned that cellulose insulation is made treated to make it mold-resistant, fire-resistant, and insect resistant.

Looks like I might have a re-insulation project in my future. Home Guides lays out the steps for vacuuming out insulation from walls (and attics, too).


Improperly insulated ducts and connection to roof caps that are not airtight can be a source for condensation. Instead of releasing moisture outside, it condenses at the joint.

The water from the condensation slides down the pipe, making it’s way to the ceiling. It’s normal to have frost in an attic, but attics are built to allow the moisture to exit. If these exits are blocked or malfunctioning for whatever reason, there could be issues.

Brown water stains on ceiling.

In all of these issues, the source must be fixed. Water stains can not only cause visual damage, but it can erode the drywall, making it weak and crumbly. Once the source of the brown spots are fixed, the ceiling can be repainted.

Repairing water stains on ceiling

Damaged areas should be thoroughly dry before applying paint. Do NOT paint on an active wet spot on the ceiling or wall. Do not paint over damp spots on walls or ceilings. ALWAYS FIND THE SOURCE OF A WATER STAIN AND FIX IT BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO REPAIR, REMOVE, OR PAINT OVER THE CEILING STAIN!

Use a special paint product for mold and mildew stains. KILZ brand is the king of products to use when blocking stains prior to painting (KILZ is generally an oil-based paint product, but there are latex versions as well). KILZ even makes a special aerosol paint to cover up ceiling spots.

It’s important to coat the stain two or even three times (drying between each coat). It would even be wise to wait a couple of days to see if the brown creeps out again. No one wants to touch up a spot after the ceiling has been fully repainted.

Repainting entire ceiling to repair brown spots

You may wonder if you have to completely paint the ceiling after touching up one spot. Often, the answer is “yes.” Touch up paint products are helpful in that they diminish the eye sore, but they won’t completely match the ceiling paint. If you want your flawless ceiling back, it will have to be completely repainted after the brown spot has been touched up.

Mold on the bathroom ceiling

We’re all friends here, right? I feel comfortable sharing with you that I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to mold in bathrooms. Brown spots on ceilings falls right into the mold category.

Black mold scares me, talk to a professional if that is your problem. What a lot of people describe as yellow mold on ceiling or yellow spots, orange mold on ceiling, or brown or blackish spots ceilings can just be a mix of water, soap, minerals, mildew and mold (all typical bathroom residents).

Bathrooms are the emphasis here – especially mold on ceiling above shower – because of the high humidity environment and steamy clouds that rise up setting the stage for nasties on bathroom ceilings.

Mold on ceiling in bedroom

Just a brief interruption of mold and bathrooms. Of course, mold can be found in other parts of the home, especially with moisture issues, but bedrooms?

Mold in bedrooms could be due to poor wall insulation, as discussed in an earlier section regarding water stains. If you have water stains, you could be dealing with mold, too. Here are possible reasons:

  • poor insulation in walls, around doors and window frames
  • windows need to be replaced, not energy efficient, letting moisture in
  • bathroom proximity is carrying moisture from bathroom to bedroom
  • possibly vents in walls bringing in moisture

How to remove mold from bathroom ceiling

I really, really hope that you have a nice, smooth ceiling to wash. Removing mold from a drywall ceiling isn’t hard if it’s smooth. My current posh digs have me enjoying a laminate ceiling – yes, I said laminate (courtesy a late 1970s remodel).

I have cleaned both, and it is pretty easy. Let me be clear and say all the bathroom “nasties”. It isn’t all necessarily mold, but could be some yellow or orange stuff, too. Pretty, eh?


The ceiling can be wiped down with a solution of bleach and water to instantly remove the mold. Seriously, it’s like magic. Put on a pair of cleaning gloves, prop open the door and turn on the ceiling fan for good ventilation. You can add bleach to water, but I usually use straight bleach.

You can try vinegar, but this is really a job for full-strength bleach. I don’t even waste my time with vinegar anymore. WARNING: Only use bleach on a white ceiling, be careful not to drip on colored walls adjacent to the tub or shower enclosure. Never wash down painted walls with bleach or you risk lightening the color of walls with drips and splotches (don’t ask how I know this).


Some people have had success spraying Lysol disinfectant product on the spots. Natural remedies include baking soda, white vinegar and tea tree oil to treat brown mold. Some users have reported good luck using Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.


First off, my condolences if you are trying to remove mold from a popcorn ceiling. I live with popcorn ceilings (hello! 1970s house living in).

The heavy texture of popcorn ceilings can harbor dust and dirt, soot from a fireplace, or nicotine use in the home. In fact, it can be a source of allergies for some people. The texture of the “popcorn” can range from very large particles to hardly noticeable on a ceiling.

To clean, attempt to wipe down the ceiling with a solution of bleach and water as directed earlier for mold. In drastic mold situations, you might have to scrape off the popcorn texture. After that, the ceiling can be much more easily cleaned with bleach.

If the popcorn ceiling was in a bathroom, a slight texture may have to be re-applied, followed by mold-resistant paint.

If the mold is in other parts of the house, serious inspection must take place. Mold can be a health hazard and should be taken seriously.

How to prevent mold on bathroom ceiling

I liked to take hot showers, until I was the one having to pay for the electricity! I’m also the one who cleans the bathroom – there’s plenty of incentive for me to stop mold and mildew growth.

Prevent mold and mildew growth on bathroom ceilings by taking these actions:

  • don’t take steaming hot showers, minimize length of showers
  • leave door to bathroom open after taking a shower
  • periodically clean out the ceiling exhaust fan and make sure it’s working properly
  • install a good ventilation fan to remove moisture from room (this might mean upgrading if the old fan is poorly performing)
  • paint ceiling with mold-resistant paint

Cleaning supplies to clean mold off of bathrrom ceiling.

Surfactant leaching and paint

Mysterious drippy brown spots on walls – what could it be? The picture below mimics the same experience seen in my in-laws home. It is exactly what was happening in their livingroom and adjacent office. Turns out, this leaching of paint is called surfactant leaching, which appears as a drippy substance on an otherwise clean wall.

I just assumed that it had something to do with the Boxelder bug problems we have seen in the midwest, United States.

Example of surfactant leaching causing brown "drips" on wall paint.

Example of surfactant leaching causing brown “drips” on wall paint (AKA brown sticky spots on walls).

Surfactants are ingredients in water based paints that help performance. Think of the flow and levelling of paint qualities – with the surfactant ingredient, the paint would be worthless.

From the Benjamin Moore paint site:

“These water-soluble components [surfactants] migrate over time to the surface of the paint. When newly applied latex paint is exposed to high moisture or humidity while it’s drying and/or curing, the surfactants can rise prematurely to the film’s surface, producing a residue or splotches. This residue can be sticky, discolored, glossy or soapy in appearance. Surfactant leaching frequently shows up in bathrooms and other humid environments on ceilings or walls.”

Surfactant leaching on new paint

Some people have even described their brown spots as oily glossy streaks. The Dulux site reports that brown spots usually show up within the first few weeks after painting. The leached material can vary in color from almost clear (such as glossy patches on the paint surface) to whitish (translucent), to shades of tan, brown or orange.

Delux also mentions that the leaching is more noticeable on dark colors rather than pastel shades of paint. If your problem sounds like surfactant leaching, you can actually wash the brown stuff away with mild soapy water. You do need a week for the paint to cure so you don’t damage the paint job.

Surfactant leaching on old paint

I was glad that the mysterious, oily brown dripping mystery solved – almost. My brown drippy mess was not due to fresh paint or a moist environment, what gives? Before I knew about surfactant leaching, I figured it was some type of waste left by a seasonal problem with Boxelder bugs.

Now that I see other people’s pictures of surfactant leaching, I know that is what is was. Turns out that surfactant leaching can happen a few years down the road after the initial paint job. The drips my in-laws encountered were around livingroom windows, so finger pointing to moisture building up around the window could be justified.


In this Houzz forum, a person states that they used their guest bathroom while their master bath was being remodeled. A week in, he noticed that the paint seemed to be “reacting to the steam of the shower.” He further reports that, “it appears to be kind of weeping some transparent slightly sticky substance onto the surface.”

Another person responded with a similar experience piped in, “whenever a shower is taken, a sticky light brown substance comes through the paint and if enough moisture is present, will drip slightly down the walls. It actually reminds me of honey. No one for sure can tell me what it is but one thing mentioned was nicotine.”

User Alexisserna produced a very thoughtful reply:  “It [surfactant leaching] will not necessarily show up immediately. It may be a few years down the road. It is still caused by moisture. Over time the moisture breaks down the latex paint which will cause the surfactants to come out.”

Thank you Alexisserna. I thought I was losing my mind. The mystery is officially solved. The drips my in-laws encountered were around windows, so pointing a finger at a high moisture condition could be justified.

Cleaning surfactant leaching

In some cases, the leaching can stain the paint. First, try more than once to wash the brown marks away. Worst case scenario, you will have to repaint under proper conditions. This means that no one get to use the bathroom for a week, or such things as avoiding painting during high humidity.

Rinsing with fresh water can help to wash it away. On interior surfaces, the leached material can be easily removed within a week (allow the paint film to fully cure and harden) by washing with a mild soapy solution and a soft cloth or sponge, followed by a thorough rinse with clean water.

Care must be exercised when washing to prevent damage to the soft or uncured paint film. Under severe conditions surfactant leaching may reappear once or twice until all the surfactant has been removed.

Users reported repeatedly washing the drips off, but they would come back. Another user said they most often seen this phenomenon in bathrooms (the example in the picture was in a hallway).

Brown spots on wall after painting – other explanations

Brown spots on wall seems to be a more common problem in fresh paint jobs. New repaints, if not allowed to fully cure, can leach out, especially in a high-humidity environment, such as bath or shower use.


I’ll just throw out that having bees in your walls can have similar consequences. Sometimes homeowners or landlords don’t realize there is a bee issue of hive building and leakage. Of course, this is a rare circumstance.


I’ve mentioned Boxelder problems before. The same house I live in has encountered Asian Beetle problems. The University of Minnesota Extension reports that Boxelder bugs can stain walls, curtains, and other surfaces with their excrement.

The pretty little Asian Lady Beetle (aka Asian Ladybugs)stink and also can stain walls and fabrics, according to West Virginia University Extension.


Nicotene is often mentioned as a possible culprit for finding tarry substances on walls. The theory doesn’t ring true if the residents do not smoke or use tobacco products. It could be that surfactant leaching is rearing it’s ugly head.


One more thing: rust. Many walls utilize metal corner protectors that are placed over drywall corners and mudded in. These corner (and nail heads) can rust, leaching through the paint. I always touch up corners with KILZ to avoid this problem.

Brown spots coming through painted furniture

Brown spots coming through painted furniture could be rust. If the furniture was refinished using steel wool, flecks of the steel could become embedded into the furniture. The steel could also have been stuck onto the furniture because the piece was not thoroughly cleaned before painting. An uncle who ran a furniture and repair store gave me that tip. Since then, I have been hesitant of using steel wool in refinishing.

You may encounter brown stains coming through chalk paint. Chalk paint is popular for painting furniture because you don’t have to prime the furniture first. As stated earlier, if you are painting over wood, tanins in the wood could be reacting to the paint.

If you are attempting to paint over previously stained furniture, the stain can be coming through, as in my example below of painting pantry shelves. It is always wise to prime before painting, even though the chalk paint is advertised that you don’t have to.

"Upcycled" chair being repainted.

“Upcycled” chair being repainted.

Brown spots coming through painted wood

My pantry makeover vision included painted sage green shelves. When I removed the old 1970s contact paper, I discovered why the paper was there in the first place. It was covering up an accidental wood stain spill. I could see that it was a spill from the telltale splatters on the wall as well as the shelving.

It was quite a dramatic spill. Looking at it, any DIYer would have given up. I had my sage green vision and nothing could stop me.

To stop the brown stain from coming though my paint layer, I had to resort to covering the shelf with Rust-olium protective enamel oil-based paint. I had to take additional steps before I could paint latex paint over the now covered oil-based painted shelf. Mind you, this was after several coats of the usually reliable KILZ stain blocker bleeding through.

Brown spots showing up under paint due to spilled refinishing stain.

Brown spots showing up under paint due to spilled refinishing stain.

Now in hindsight, I see where contact paper was the perfect solution to blocking stains on wood. I could slap the contact paper over the wood, put a layer of primer on it, and then coat with my latex paint color of choice (I wish I had done this had I known the damage lurking below).

The next time you have a stain that keeps bleeding through paint, especially a shelf, consider covering it first with contact paper.

This wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve encountered brown spots coming up through paint jobs before. In this case, it was very obvious what the source of the brown spots were, but you may never know where your mystery brown spots originate from.

Brown stains coming through wallpaper

Brown stains coming through wallpaper may be due to several issues, just like everything else here.

The brown spots could be due to surfactant leaching (leaching of paint). This drippy substance appears on otherwise clean walls. Basically, a substance within the paint is “coming out.”

Wall paper quality could be an issue. There are different thicknesses of wallpaper. Some are almost wispy and have no real defense for what lurks underneath. Other wallpapers are super tough and washable, perfect for a bathroom!

What was under the surface of the wall before you painted or wallpapered over it? Sometimes people use products that were never intended for painting walls. In my pantry shelf painting project, someone had put contact paper over shelving.

When I removed the contact paper, I discovered why the previous person did that. It was covering up a furniture stain spill. I worked really hard to cover up that stain with all kinds of stain blocking paints (and maybe a few ill words!). Let’s just say I barely beat it, I still think it’s going to resurge at a later date.

Priming before painting solves future issues

Priming consistently prevent issues. It’s so important, that I added it to the list of steps for successful painting in “Motivational Painting Advice.” I also talk about it in “The Right Pantry Paint Makes a Difference” and a whole section in “6 Steps to Take Before Painting Pantry Shelves.” It may seem like an extra step, but when you encounter issues like brown spots, taking proper precautions really saves you time in the long run.

Good luck, my friends! Together, we can beat the brown spot mystery!

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